Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Into the Woods: Sondheim's "Fault" & Virtuosity

[Photo:Huttlestone, Corden, Crawford, Streep, Kendrick from ITW]
With Disney's wide release of the film Into the Woods, more people may be able to understand why I often cite "Your Fault," a brief number from the second half, as my favorite Sondheim song.

A casual observer might not even recall "Your Fault," because it leads into the Witch's show-stopping solo, "Last Midnight."  That's one of the things I like about the song, that it does its job!   But "Your Fault" is a prism that concentrates the brilliance of the entire show and refracts the many virtues of Sondheim as artist.

"Your Fault" Focuses the Story
James Lapine's script for Into the Woods interweaves four familiar fairy tales with an original.  Seeking objects demanded by a Witch to break a spell, a Baker and his Wife cross paths with Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Ridinghood, and Rapunzel.  Mid-way through the show, everyone has reached their "happily ever after" conclusion; in the second half, however, there are consequences.  "Your Fault" is the song that draws all the strands of the story together.

The song "Your Fault" emerges from a scene of strong emotions.   In a clearing of the woods, we see Cinderella, Red Ridinghood, and the Baker with his infant son, hiding from a lady giant who has trampled the kingdom in her search for Jack, who killed her husband.  Jack appears, dragged by the Witch, who plans to appease the giant's desire for revenge. Jack tells how he found the Baker's wife at the foot of a cliff, killed in the giant's rampage.  A dissonant vamp begins slowly and picks up speed as the Baker says to Jack, "It's because of you there's a giant in our midst and my wife is dead!"

Jack responds in song (rhymes italicized):
But it wasn't my fault,
I was given those beans!
You persuaded me to trade away
My cow for beans!
And without those beans
There'd have been no stalk
To get up to the Giants
In the first place!
The Baker fires right back:
Wait a minute --
Magic beans
For a cow so old
That you had to tell a lie to sell it,
Which you told!
Were they worthless beans?
Were they oversold?
Oh, and tell us who persuaded you to
Steal that gold!
Red Ridinghood joins in, saying, "So it's your fault!" to Jack, who accuses the Baker,
Wait a minute, though --
I only stole the gold
To get my cow back
From you!
In lines that follow, every character incriminates every other character.  The song clarifies how the characters' choices from the first half of the story, like seeds, have now grown up to wreak havoc.

Music of "Your Fault"
In the same way that five magic beans are the root of the whole story, Sondheim takes five notes -- Do, Fa, Sol, Mi, Re -- to be "seeds" for the entire score.   (A photo of Sondheim's initial worksheet, labeled "Motifs," appears in the second volume of his memoir Look I Made a Hat, p. 93).  We heard these five notes first when the Witch explained how to reverse the curse. The same motif obsesses Rapunzel, and sounds prominently in melodies for songs "Giants in the Sky" and "Stay with Me"; the five notes combine in chords that accompany solos for Red Ridinghood, Jack, and Cinderella.   Now, in "Your Fault,"  Jack outlines the bean motif on the syllables "only," "stole," "gold," "get" and "cow" (the last two notes reversed). The motif returns to form a bridge to a final round of accusations.  (Later in the show, it's played and partially sung as a counter-melody in the ballad, "No One Is Alone.")

Two other motifs on Sondheim's manuscript repeat throughout this song.  One is the rising interval of a major second, associated in the first sung notes of the show with the words "I wish," a starting point for the motifs belonging to each character.   In "Your Fault," the "wish" motif makes the ostinato in the bass.  Over that ostinato plays a dissonant chord labeled "Spell" in Sondheim's manuscript, the major seventh chord with augmented fifth. Its sound is already familiar from every appearance of the Witch.

So, it's not a stretch to say that the entire score as well as the entire story is compressed in this one number.

Sondheim builds the song efficiently.   He repeats the same basic material three times, but extends each ending in a different way to escalate the action -- and the key -- to each new iteration of the idea "it's your fault." The song builds to a point where four voices in unison accuse the Witch: "You're the one to blame! It's your fault!"

But Sondheim tops the song's emphatic last phrase with a surprise: "Shhhh!" Where applause would start, the Witch, finger to her lips, hisses for quiet. Over steady deep bass notes that recall the footsteps of the giant, she sings ominous words, "It's the last midnight."  The tune begins with a rising augmented fifth, the dissonant interval we've heard in the accompaniment throughout "Your Fault."

As "Last Midnight" develops, the Witch mocks the other characters: "You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice.  I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right!" Contrast, musical continuity, and theme make "Your Fault" an effective ramp up to the Witch's show-stopper. 

Actors' Virtuosity in "Your Fault"
This is all esoteric stuff to admire in a study with soundtrack and piano; but Sondheim writes for actors, not scholars.   Artists want to show some virtuosity, or the audience won't be impressed.    Audiences want contrast, a wide range of expressions, and some physical accomplishments.  This song gives the actors lots to show them off.

Actor James Corden, who plays the Baker in the film, explained in one interview how difficult and rewarding it was to sing Sondheim, because the songs are "so specific" to the character and situation.  He quoted a tongue-twister from "Your Fault" as an example of something hard to say but also exactly right for the character.  

Great performers act between their lines, too, displaying the characters' thoughts and feelings that grow into the next cue.  At any given moment in "Your Fault," four actors are giving us four characters' different responses to another character's lines.   For example, in the first lines of the song, quoted above, while the Baker backs away from Jack's accusation, he regroups to find an answer.  When he does, the accused again becomes the accuser. 

The approaches, the backing away, the regrouping, the reversals all imply action on stage.  The song becomes a kind of furious country dance, as participants pair up, spin around, and start over with a new partner.   In the film, director Rob Marshall tracks the actors as they trace a pretzel shape around the branches and stumps of the clearing.   The choreography takes a different kind of virtuosity that impresses the audience, even while we may be so wrapped up in the story that we're not conscious of the planned movement.

While Jack, the Baker, and the Witch argue about the five beans that got them into this tangle "in the first place," Cinderella seems uninvolved in the story, until Jack asks,
I chopped down the beanstalk,
Right?  That's clear,
But without any beanstalk,
Then what's queer
Is how did the second Giant get down here
In the first place?
(confused)  Second place. 
(I laugh out loud at that momentary confusion of Jack's, perfectly natural, but also built into the repeating structure of the lyric!)

Cinderella pounces, "Yes!" and the others follow suit, four characters' four syllables spoken in four beats:  "Yes!" "How?" "Hmm," "Well--".  In time to the music, each character displays a different reaction with a word.  Talk about virtuosity!  

When Jack asks, "Who had the other bean?" and Cinderella echoes, "The other bean?" the actress (Anna Kendricks in the movie) invests that question with dawning knowledge that she herself is the one who tossed away the fateful sixth bean, providing passage to earth for the second giant.  She is already backing away while the Baker figures it out:
Wait a minute!
She [i.e. his wife] exchanged that bean
To obtain your shoe
So the one who knows
What happened to the bean
Is you!
Pausing a second to look at the lyric closely, we notice that lyricist Sondheim plants the word "your" on a beat that composer Sondheim emphasizes with a raised pitch.  Sondheim often faults others for emphasizING the wrong syllaBLE.  Wouldn't the word "shoe" be emphasized in normal speech?  But this emphasis gives the actor playing the Baker an "aha" moment, when he blames Cinderella.

Apologetic as usual, Cinderella tries three expressions of innocence, all unfinished, and then she, too, lashes out:
You mean that old bean
That your wife --?  Oh, dear --
But I never knew
And so I threw --
Well don't look here!

Ridinghood and Jack each accuse her, "So it's your fault!"  Cinderella protests weakly, "But...,  But..."  while she casts about for some way to return the blame to Jack;  "If you hadn't gone back up again --!"  He protests, "We were needy!"  She corrects him: "You were greedy! / Did you need that hen?"

Red Ridinghood follows the action, singing "So it's your fault!" at every turn, trying to pin definitive blame on someone else.  When Jack finally turns on her, pointing out that she's the one who dared him to climb the beanstalk that last time, she is most defensive of all, simply denying what he says:  "I dared you to?  ...Me?  No, I didn't!... Wait a minute!"

Where's the Witch in all this?  She withdraws early, building up her case against the other four and against the whole human race, all detailed in "Last Midnight."

If "Your Fault" didn't slide so smoothly into "Last Midnight," the audience would go crazy with applause.  We want virtuosity, we want our artists to take risks, and this song delivers: So much is going on at such a rapid pace, that one dropped cue, one misstep, and the whole thing would fail. When it all goes together, it shines, it makes us laugh, and it builds tension to the next song.

Virtuosity of the Lyricist
I've marked the rhymes, often coming in threes, often sounding in the middle of phrases; to what purpose?  Sondheim's essay "Rhyme and its Reasons" (in his memoir, volume one, Finishing the Hat) gives us many reasons:
  • "A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line good and a good one brilliant."
  • "There is something about the conscious use of a form in any art that tells the customer, 'This is worth saving.'"
  • "Craig Carnelia, a first-rate composer and lyricist, put it exactly: 'True rhyming is a necessity in the theatre, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.'"
  • "A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible; a near rhyme [e.g., "together" and "forever"] blurs it."

Aside from rhyme's emphasizing the key points of a lyric, Sondheim says a "chief reason" for using perfect rhyme is "the sheer pleasure of verbal playfulness."  That's rhyme, but also, in "Your Fault," his playing with the idiom, "In the first place," as when the Witch tells the Baker,
It's your father's fault
That the curse got placed
And the place got cursed
In the first place!
Sondheim concludes his essay on rhyme with an analogy:  "Using near rhymes is like juggling clumsily."  The audience might have fun, he writes, but not nearly so much pleasure as watching a virtuoso juggling knives.

If the soundtrack didn't play, the lines of this song spoken in rhythm, would sound as natural as dialogue.  For all the virtuosity we find in both words and music of "Your Fault," its craft is concealed so as not to distract us from the characters in their story.  For me, that's the best reason of all to love"Your Fault."

[See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to Sondheim, his shows, and musical theatre more generally.]

No comments: